“Ready, fire, aim!” has never had much of a positive connotation, either in financial or military circles, but the Navy’s newest weapon could be changing that, at least somewhat.

The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), set to replace the service’s 40-year-old Harpoon missile, takes a technological step forward in long-range strikes, using sensors and on-board artificial intelligence to let a target’s own defenses work against it. It would allow a missile to be launched with less-than-perfect targeting information because it will be able to find the correct target while in route.

Instead of just using its own radar systems to locate a target, the LRASM uses a passive sensor to identify the target’s own radar signals, which warships always have powered up to detect attack. Meanwhile, the missile’s advanced algorithms sort through incoming data to ensure that the identity of the target – say, that it’s a cruiser and not a cargo ship – and to zero in on the ship’s most vulnerable spot. In essence, it gains better, more precise targeting information after it is launched.

LRASM promises to solve a lot of the uncertainty involved in a long-range attack, while the autonomy afforded by its on-board systems allows it to operate in denied environments, where GPS guidance could be disrupted, or where intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and network links might be unavailable, according to the Navy.

The missile’s guidance system is informed by Electronic Warfare Support Measures (ESM) technology developed for aircraft including the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and B-2 Spirit bomber, but miniaturized significantly to fit inside the missile, according to a report in Popular Mechanics. ESM’s passive electronic warfare systems include advanced digital signal processing, passive geolocation techniques, and miniaturized payloads, according to the Naval Research Laboratory.

LRASM has been in development since 2009, when it was started as a joint project of the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. After a couple of successful flight tests in 2013, it became an official Navy program of record in February 2014 and, after a third successful test the following year, it was transitioned to the Naval Air Systems Command. The Navy gave Lockheed Martin, which had worked on the missile’s development, an $86 million contract last year to build the first 23 LRASM missiles.

In terms of major weapons-systems development, LRASM has been on something of a fast track. It was tested in its first free-flight launch in August at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., as part of a demonstration involving the Navy, Air Force, Lockheed, and Boeing (whose B-1B Lancer long-range strategic bomber was used). “The amount of time we usually get to execute a test like this is about a couple years, but this one was pushed down to six months,” said Elvin Colindres, LRASM project manager for the Air Force. “It was a real crunch with people working a lot of overtime.”

Another similar test followed in December, with the simultaneous launch of two LRASM missiles that hit their targets, according to Lockheed. LRASM is set to be deployed on the B-1B bomber in 2018, and with F/A-18 E/F aircraft in 2019.

Seems you don’t need to be a dead shot to hit the bullseye.

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Kevin McCaney